3 ways to find the details that make your story lively

There is nothing like flying into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and looking down and seeing the particular Dutch landscape. As the plane descends over the North Sea, the coastline comes into view and as it flies ever lower, the shapes of fields and cities emerge. If we’re lucky, our flight path goes over Haarlem and I can try to show my son the city where he was born and the neighborhood we lived in. It will always be special to me.

Many times, when people come to me to work on their stories, they are telling a story that feels like that descent into landing at Schiphol. There are distinct outlines and shapes that emerge as they tell their story. There is clearly something going on in there. What’s missing is the details and the sense of place, the perspective you can only get by putting your feet on the ground and looking at the world through your particular view.

A story’s liveliness depends on the details. Say you had dinner with friends and that’s a fact, it’s an overview of the event. Say you ate a vegan Christmas dinner with friends who brought food to your house because theirs was too small to host you for a 2020 COVID Christmas and you’re creating a scene.

Why we love memoirs

This is the appeal of memoirs. In Becoming, Michelle Obama describes how wherever they live, her husband needs to have a room where he can read and pile papers and books everywhere. She needs that room to have a door she can close so she doesn’t have to look at piles of papers. This description of a home and the needs of its inhabitants tell you about their character and their relationship. 

In The Last Girl, Nadia Murad describes escaping from her captors and the thoughts that ran through her head as she tried to pick a door to knock on to ask for help. She describes the neighborhoods and her fears. The contrast between the homes that look perfectly normal and her fears, which are almost paralyzing, gives us a sense of how surreal and important that moment was.

As listeners, we love the details. We are hungry for the details about the people around us. It follows that we crave details in stories. One of the key challenges for a storyteller is to add details and to add the right details. 

1. Break it down

As you’re developing your story, put yourself into the scene and describe what happens when your feet are on the ground, your body is in the chair. Break events down into steps instead of giving a summary. If you make footbeds using a 3-D printer, break that process down for your audience. How does a scanner work? Do people use the scanner with socks or not? The details that you take for granted are the ones that your audience will enjoy.

2. Use your senses

Put yourself into the scene and go through your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel?  If you print a 3-D footbed, what color is the ink? Does the printed footbed need to cool down? What does the plastic smell like? Those concrete details bring your story to life for your audience. 

3. Include your thoughts

You can also add your personal reflections to your story, as far as you’re comfortable doing that. Do you secretly fear stinky feet when people take their shoes off? What do you think when you see socks with holes in them? Do you have a favorite part of the process? Is there a part that makes you nervous no matter how many times you do it? These details bring you to life as the storyteller.

Now you try

You won’t use every detail when you tell your story, but over time, you’ll learn to pick out and share the details that capture your audience’s attention. You’ll learn to sketch a scene with enough detail that it becomes tangible for your audience and watch as their eyes brighten up while they listen.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about adding details to your story, you should probably be adding more details to your stories. Go ahead and give it a shot and watch how your audience responds. Pay attention to how you experience your own story, too. You can bring your settings to life for yourself in your storytelling and tell your story from inside.

Picking the place where you’ll put your feet on the ground in your story and telling your story from there is the key to choosing a hero or a perspective and telling your story from there. It will make your stories much more effective and engaging.

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